The Guilt of Gratitude

About a year or two ago, I read a book called, The Happiness Project. I am sure you’ve seen or heard the hype surrounding this larger-than-life experiment in gratitude. At first, gratitude came easily to author Gretchen Rubin, a sarcastic and often silly women looking for the more in life we all seek. Then, as gratitude’s time-tested experiments and real-world crap collided, things became more desperate and difficult for Gretchen. And, as in all books with a happy ending, she discovers sticking with gratitude in a multitude of ways really does bolster your happiness quotient.

For me, this book was just meh. Gretchen seemed trite, often times rude in her quest for trying out different sides of gratitude. But, in general I believed in her message – taking time to find the good and being grateful for it will lead to an overhaul in your general view on life. Since reading that book and really since Oprah coined her phrase ‘gratitude journal’ years ago, I’ve often tried to incorporate more thankfulness into my life.

When times were bad and paychecks lean, gratitude for loves in my life got me through. When I suffered loss or pain, focusing on my multitude of gifts (like coffee) and amazing children cheered me up. And then, as all good things were going great – gratitude somehow, someway transitioned into another beast altogether- guilt.

I am not certain when this happened or why. But, suddenly we finally had a savings account for the first time in our lives, our family was growing up and sleeping through the night (!), my business was booming and it finally seemed like everything was in synch. I was overwhelmed with so much gratitude that I looked around at others less fortunate and felt tremendous and utter shame.

Why should I deserve so much happiness? What have I done to deserve a great home, healthy kids and a giving husband? Was I any better than others dealing with loss, divorce or sick children? Of course, the answer – a resounding no – I was no more deserving and no better than anyone else. I was just luckier in the draw in that particular part of my life.

I think back to a time when I was young. I went to an elementary school in an insular and strict private school environment that taught the mantra ‘You will get what you deserve’. I grew up believing that breaking any rule would bring an onslaught of hellish fire and I may be struck by lightening at any moment. Skip a class? You will get expelled. Eat on a minor fast day? Your stomach will surely hurl itself into oblivion. This led to an onslaught of fear and loathing both for my little world at school and contributed to my heightened anxiety as I was growing up. I never wanted to do anything “wrong” (by whichever standards I was following) or make a mistake for fear of what may lay in wait.

In my mind it was simple –I f you were good, good things happen to you – if you are not good, well watch out…

But, as I became an adult and saw the world around me make plenty of good or bad choices the ultimate question came to the forefront – Why do bad things happen to the good people? It made no sense.

Then, I read another book, this one much more meaningful to me than the Happiness Project – The Garden of Emunah (Belief) by Rabbi Shalom Arush.

This book, while also at times trite and flowery, became an unbelievable reminder that if you sort of ‘go with the flow’ of life you can’t feel slighted, angry, sad or depressed. It’s just life. Not better than someone else’s, not worse. It’s yours and yours alone. It has really helped my perspective in realizing that its a waste of time to feel guilty for the gifts of my life. I shouldn’t walk around apologizing that I have health or happiness. I also shouldn’t feel angry when it doesn’t go ‘my way’ because truly it is going my way, I just don’t realize it at the time. It’s just the Plan.

I make the choices that contribute to the path my life of course, but ultimately health, happiness and love are all very changeable and in an instant. I am trying hard to focus less on being thankful and more on thanking those around me and of course, the Guy Upstairs. I am working hard on recognizing the Plan versus feeling that I somehow did something intrinsically amazing or horrific to get there. It’s my Plan and I’m sticking to it.

Happy New Year, all. May We All Be Inscribed in The Book of ‘Good Plans’ Until 120.

Add to the conversation! Start up a debate...